Thursday, February 14, 2013

Flaws and Females: The Ugly and The Beautiful Inside Hell House

Hell House took my mind all over the place: from the absurd, to the frightening, to the humorous. A few weeks ago, I discussed how The Haunting of Hill House could be seen as a YA novel, and it’s obvious that Hell House was inspired by Hill House, but any child-like qualities I mentioned for Jackson’s work were stripped from Matheson’s work. His book is definitely meant for adults, but the lack of sophistication left something to be desired from a story inspired by Hill House and written by Matheson. Still, there’s something to take away from Matheson’s techniques.

Hell House was written in the 70’s, and I think the female characters falter a bit because they illustrate an outdated, almost sexist view of women. As Florence and Edith are manipulated by the evil in the house, they lose their innocence, and in doing so, they become absurd caricatures of women. Their actions do not illustrate psychologically unstable women, but instead seem to point inwards and shout, “I am an unstable woman!” For instance when Edith says, “Suck them, you fairy bastard, or I’ll get myself a woman who will!” (171), she seems to be calling more attention to herself than actually demonstrating her loss with reality.

Regarding this flaw, it could be argued that Matheson was attempting different objectives with his novel than Jackson was with her book, so it’s unfair to compare the depths of their characters. Although I agree he had different objectives, none account for his faulty females. Jackson tackled the unreliable narrator with magnificent skill, and Matheson attempts to investigate the paranormal while letting it degrade the psyches of his characters. He does a similar supernatural investigation with pseudo science in I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come. The concept is fascinating that the supernatural can be explained with science, that it’s a little mysticism yet a little tangible. Still, the females come off as cheesy and artificial because they are merely mechanisms being utilized to establish Matheson’s perception of the afterlife and not fully-developed characters.

The women never became much deeper than they were in the start, and portions became laughable. Again, the women seemed dainty in the start, and at the end, they were still just sexual tools utilized by the author and by the men in the house. For instance, Florence’s possession seemed implausible, as if she was just a helpless romantic letting men take advantage of her. Also, the absurdity of Florence’s fate had me laughing when I should have been horrified.

These criticisms aren’t to say I disliked the book. On the contrary, I found it thought-provoking (although not in an ambiguous way such as The Haunting of Hill House), and portions of it were frightening. One of the most notable elements assisting the frights were the tales told within the story. Pages 54-61 of my copy specifically relate the cannibalistic orgies thrown at the house, and what readers get isn’t the terror of living through those parties, but the fear associated with the reactionary view of the present-day characters. Somehow, it’s more chilling to see stable individuals discuss and react to the horrendous events that took place in the house--their reactions set the stage for our reactions, and then set the scene for their own struggles within the house. This technique of build up through the use of backstory and character reactions happens again when Barrett discusses, with Edith, Fischer’s past. By setting Fischer up through Barret and Edith’s reactions, his history parallels that of the house. Also, by giving an impressed reaction from a skeptic, Fischer’s credibility is heightened, and readers then want to see him reach his true potential and fight the evil. Of course, in the end, he does.

The finale left me with the impression that if the first set of ghost hunters would have just called Belasco a bastard a half dozen times, the house would have been cleansed. This method for beating a great evil did not seem completely suitable. But there is an issue that arises when dealing with demons and spirits: the difficulty of finding a suitable way of defeating the monster without resorting to magic or improbable methods. I suppose, with the aid of Barret’s machine, Fischer’s tactic was as good as any. I was just left wanting something more.

Work Cited

Matheson, Richard. Hell House. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1971. Print.


  1. I agree that the way the women are portrayed in the novel is out dated but true to the time period. Regardless, it was hard to really get into that part of the story because it was so different from what we've be raised to see. But overall, I like you did enjoy the majority of the book. I think I've enjoyed it more in retrospect given that in class we're discussing belief in ghosts. I do like that in the novel we have varying reactions from science to mystical to the happenings of the house.

  2. I'm not quite getting the criticism of Matheson's females. I can see arguments being made for some implicit sexism in Edith's generally helpless demeanor, but Florence? I'd argue she's more consistently portrayed in a positive light than any other character. Where Matheson might have pigeonholed her into the caricature of spirituality Mrs. Montague served as in Hill House, he instead made a point of demonstrating that her compassion was rooted in intelligence and emotional maturity. She's the first to develop a consistent (if flawed) model for the nature of the house's haunting, she's open-minded enough to accept Fischer's criticism and temporarily see through the illusion of Daniel Belasco, and she's the only member of the group to recognize, even late in the game, how important it is that they work with one another. Was it kind of indulgent of Matheson to choose the two female characters as the ones being sexually influenced by Hell House? Possibly, but I didn't see the depiction being rooted in sexism so much as eroticism. The underlying theme of the house's history was unchecked consumption of hedonistic desires, and I read Edith's outbursts as an offshoot of that theme rather than a demonization of feminine sexuality. It may be because I'm a male from a later time period than the audience the book was written to, but any sexism here really went over my head.

  3. Interesting thoughts. You're correct that Florence demonstrated compassion that was rooted in intelligence and emotional maturity. However, that in itself is stereotypical and even sexist. Compassion and emotions are stereotypically tied to mothers and women. One way of viewing her is as a two-side coin, one side being the nurturing mother and the other side being the erotic animal--the two sides a sexist male thinks a woman should be. Likewise, Barrett, though, was similarly limited. Barrett was close minded, cool headed, and emotionally distant--the traditional stereotypical character of a father. Interesting, realistic characters would have elements from all over the gender spectrum. Maybe this is why I liked Fischer the most. He was cool headed and closed off most of the time, but he was also compassionate to the others and was invaded similarly to Florence, giving him a weaker side. Maybe Matheson intentionally made the characters this way as a sort of symbolism, but from his other books, it seems to be an outdated constant.

  4. I loved the quote you pulled when discussing Matheson’s Hell House. Edith, in the grips of possession or sexual frustration, shoves her breasts into Fisher’s face and screams, “Suck them, you fairy bastard, or I’ll get myself a woman who will!”(p. 171).
    As we recall, the ‘70s, the decade of this book’s creation as well as its narration, roiled with changing gender relations. For many, there was noting more horrifying than the idea that a female was capable of pleasuring another female in bed. Girls had begun popping up everywhere: in schools, in businesses, as bosses, and now—My God, was nothing sacred?!—in each other’s beds. The male, the entrenched power for centuries, had been supplanted in many respects. The female had fallen under the idea that a man was needed for only one thing: their seed. Aggressive “femi-natzis” had infiltrated the boardrooms, wrenching the white male privilege out from beneath their feet. The hue and the cry was legendary, a normal response when drastic sociopolitical changes are done with such speed. But to invade the bedroom? The last bastion of male superiority? Unheard of!
    We see this even today. “Masculine” women are called “dykes” instead of simply women. When a woman comes into power of some type it is often to the accompaniment of whispers that she enjoys women instead of men. Condemnations of “unnatural caresses!” are screamed from the pulpit but that doesn’t stem the tide of masculine fear. And it is fear. Men have lost jobs to women, putting their families and futures at risk. Equal opportunity arrived, putting the playing field more out of its familiar schematic, so it is no surprise that this pressure would arrive onto the pages of popular fiction at the time.
    There are many subtexts playing out in Matheson’s Hell House. Edith, the ever dutiful, patient, and sexually numb wife accompanies her Very Important Husband on is journey through life. At this house, she is confronted by the lovely Florence, titillations of lesbianism, and overt acts of sexual wantonness to both genders. Throughout this confusion, or her metaphorical life, she struggles to maintain her place alongside her loving but sexually incapable husband. (Wow, talk about an emasculation of the man! No confusion there!) And in the end, dutifully supporting her husband and the “heir apparent,” she accompanies Fisher to the conclusion: the cleansing of Hell House.
    Such a good wife.
    Such a good woman.
    And that may have been Matheson’s point with this character.

  5. I love that you point out the stories that were told. Little background tidbits like that are some of my favorite things when it comes to stories. I think they add to the overall atmosphere and help put the reader in right mood. Great insights!